Culture and Neoliberalism

My last series summarizes the state of my neoliberalism project. It turns out that I have mostly focused on the economics of neoliberalism. Another aspect of the project was to learn how we as a society got caught up in neoliberalism. None of the work I’ve done so far has given me much of an answer to that, let alone the question of how we get out of this mess.

That part was relatively straightforward. I had a basic understanding of how to read and learn about neoliberalism. I have a background in dealing with the actual economy; I knew most of the mainstream economic ideas from College where I took several courses; and from continued readings over the years; and I’m reasonably fluent in college-level math. When it comes to culture as a field of study I’m pretty much at ground zero, and to tell the truth, I was surprised to see the emphasis on culture in Critical Theory. So, this will be a different kind of reading.

I’m going to start with Pierre Bourdieu, a French Sociologist of the second half of the 20th Century. Bourdieu and Foucault are perhaps the best known French thinkers of that period today, as existentialism and indeed most straight philosophy have fallen out of intellectual favor. Their kind of thinking is not that common in the US; we don’t exactly have an intellectual class, and we never really valued the life of the mind. We have a lot of experts and a lot of smart and well-trained people, but they are rooted in specific fields, and the number who think usefully beyond their areas is small. Historically, the intellectual was a recognized class in France, and even today many French politicians aspire to the title. Can you imagine a US politician who wants to be thought of that way? We elect regular folk just bursting with common sense, which probably explains something about our inability to solve problems.

But there is another factor: David Brooks. I read parts of Brooks’ New York Times column regularly as a check on my own ambitions. One common form of column is “I read this article and it proves conservatives like me are right and liberals are killing society.” Here’s a lovely example of High Brooksism. I think wants to say that neoliberalism is a bad theory because it emphasizes the isolated individual and rejects communal and social values, but he can’t because neoliberalism is at the heart of conservativism. Too bad, because it would enable him to criticize Republicans and most Democrats, and it would move him outside the boundaries of “both sides do it” and into an open policy space. But, as he says, people over 56 years old like him are clueless, so we get this absurd conclusion from the incoherent mess above it:

Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism. Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely. Washington policy wonks build technocratic sand castles that keep getting swept away in the cultural tides.

I absolutely don’t want to be like Brooks with his unmoored rationalizations and his pretense of intellectualism. My goal is to see what other people think and try to make sense of it. To that end, I think someone who sees things from a perspective outside my own culture will give me more distance, as was the case with my earlier readings.

I first heard of Bourdieu some time ago, I don’t remember where or when, but the gist was that his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste was a must-read. Now I want to read it, because some of the issues around taste seem important in the US, where all our choices seem to define us. But as with Critical Theory, I’m going to start with an overview of Bourdieu to learn some of his basic concepts. So, the next book is David Swartz’s Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. I’ve started it, and it seems very readable.

I have a couple of basic thoughts to start with, and we’ll see if they hold up.

1. I’m pretty sure that culture isn’t the outcome of the economy, as might be the point of early Critical Theory. It seems likely that people’s natural creativity just pours out. I read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe years ago, and came away with the idea that the people in that car culture, just like the surfers, the anti-war groups, and the disco dancers in Saturday Night Fever were happily living in the shadows of the economy, not straining for success in the broader world, but creating their own milieu with what was at hand. Of course, corporate culture sucked the life out of those cultures, or they died on their own, but the impulse to use the conditions of life in new and inventive ways never dries up. We can watch the process as gaming culture grows up and gets turned into an ESPN sport. I’m sure the kids will be moving on, leaving the olds farther out of touch.

2, When I was growing up, there was this trope about lowbrow, middle-brow and high-brow taste. We have plenty of classifications of people today: tribalists, angry white people, Evangelicals, Berniecrats; personality types like INTJ, and authoritarian submissives; and of course all the marketing categories, like these in Wikipedia. These characterizations feel ad hoc and instrumental, and no matter how fine the segments are, they hardly seem adequate to the complexities of most of the people I have ever met. But we can’t think clearly about a population of 320 million without categories, so some kind of classification seems important.

3. The first book about psychology I read was I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas Anthony Harris. I thought I knew something when I was done. Then I read some Freud, Jung, Adler and other actual psychologists (badly, I should add), and realized I had been sucked into a pop psych book. It wasn’t useless, but close. I want to avoid that. More pointedly, I don’t want a system. I think we all come in in the middle, including the Frankfurt School and Bourdieu and Foucault, and try to figure things out as best we can. What I’m looking for is some sort of starting framework that can be used and evaluated and reformed, over and over until it needs replacement by a better framework.

What I don’t want is sloppy, disjointed and internally inconsistent thinking, theories unconnected to data, or random collections of data interpreted ideologically. And no thought leaders, whatever the hell they are. And no David Brooks.

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 4C Conclusion

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 3A. This post at Naked Capitalism expands on Part 3, and adds a discussion of Simcha Barkai’s paper and methodology; I discuss other aspects in Part 4A.
Part 4A.
Part 4B.

It’s fairly easy to criticize neoliberalism from the inside, just based on its incoherence and its failure to deliver good outcomes to most of us. The Barkai Paper discussed in parts 3A and 3A, and the Paradise Papers and the Panama Papers make it obvious that the benefits of neoliberalism flow to the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us, whose wages are largely stagnant and have been for decades, and whose share of overall wealth has fallen.

Neoliberalism can also be criticized from the outside as a form of capitalism, and that seems to me to be more revealing. The constricted logic of capitalism leads directly to domination by the few in business and society generally. The logic that pushes towards dominance is the result of the nature of reason as it has evolved since the Enlightenment. I’ve discussed similar descriptions of the drive to domination in Polanyi, Arendt and to a lesser extent Veblen; click name above to visit my author page. My recent discussions of these points based on my first readings in Critical Theory can be found here, here, and here.

The members of the Frankfurt School were trained in classical German thought, including Hegel, Kant, and Marx. Initially they accepted Marx’ theory of an inherent contradiction in capitalism: that the rich would accumulate all the money and impoverish the workers, who would rise up and lead the revolution. That didn’t happen. Instead, the drive to domination was restrained by legislation. The majority’s insistence on restraints was so strong that the Supreme Court, that playground of the elites, was forced to allow the legislation to stand. But the scholars of the Frankfurt School knew that the drive to domination didn’t disappear. Today it’s just as strong as it was in the late 19th Century.

The natural logic of capitalism is gigantism. Marx said that in unrestrained capital, smaller businesses will be swallowed up by larger businesses, and he was right, as we see today. Organizations with massive capital wield enormous power, and can easily take over control of a society. We see the beginnings of all this today. There is a long tradition in the US of distrust of large piles of money and the people who control them, a sentiment that drove the progressive movement of the late 19th Century. That doesn’t disappear accidentally. It requires an external force to change it. I wouldn’t say it has disappeared today, but far too many of us have lost that natural distrust.

Somehow many people think billionaires as just like the rest of us. They aren’t, and the vulgar braggart in the White House is a perfect exemplar. But far too many of us are willing to accept rule by the rich. One of the central influences that led to this sorry situation is the Law and Economics movement, with its single-minded focus on economic efficiency. Economic efficiency: who could object that? Of course we should be efficient.

Once courts decided that the most important part of justice is insuring economic efficiency, they began to eat away at the laws and theories that enabled the majority to control the rich and powerful. Ideals like the importance of fairness, or social equality, or recognizing and correcting power imbalances through legislation, withered and vanished. Gradually we lost the ability to govern by majority rule. Our Supreme Court feels no compunction in overruling the will of the majority on health care, on voting rights, even on actual elections.

That is the result of the same kind of logic that drives capitalism, the logic of economic efficiency applied to every area of life. A somewhat simple idea that might be useful in limited settings becomes the overall mindset, the formula for decision-making that jumps from the tiny number of cases in which it might be a useful to the absurd idea that it works in every area of law.

It would be interesting to see a history of the erosion of the Securities Laws beginning under Reagan and his hit-man SEC Chair John Shad, followed by mildly limiting legislation, which the courts expanded to cut way back on the ability of the regulator to regulate, and the investor to sue. The Supreme Court bought into Posner’s principle, and then expanded it beyond recognition.

Friedrich Pollock, a member of the Frankfurt School, said that the profit motive has always been a form of the power motive. It just gets dressed up in fancy reductive logic by the likes of Posner and Bork for public consumption. Regardless of their motives, they are no different from Frank Luntz, who uses the tools of rhetoric to hide the ugly transformations sought by the rich.

All these changes start small, and require something that seems like a justification, but eventually, it’s just the whim of the elites. That’s how Trump acts, and that’s how the more effective members of his cabinet and his other appointees act. Rex Tillerson is destroying our capacity to engage in diplomacy. Scott Pruitt is destroying our ability to protect ourselves from climate change and pollution. Jeff Sessions is wrecking the Justice Department. All this was foreshadowed by the destruction of the SEC under Shad.

When government is dismantled, how does a society work? The rich take over and run things according to their fancies.

That’s the logic of capitalism. Control the capitalists or they controls you.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 1

This is the first of a short series on my long-term project on neoliberalism. The questions I started with were 1. How did neoliberalism become the dominant discourse; 2. Was there an alternative; and 3. How can we move to some other form of discourse.

I started with the premise that the neoliberal project has two prongs, a theory of the person in society and an an economic theory.

The person in society is as a rational actor whose only important role is to get a job producing stuff which provides money to buy stuff based solely on a rational calculation of utility. The work part doesn’t apply to people with money. They just rationally concentrate on getting more money. People with no money and no job are subject to discipline by the carceral state. It doesn’t matter why they don’t have jobs. No work, no money, no freedom.

The economic theory is based on neoclassical economics, with its roots in 19th Century morality and the idea that everything can be stated mathematically. The morality is Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, with a strong dose of Calvinism evidenced by the phrase “the lash of hunger”.

My project and my premise are based on reading books which broadly fall into three categories: theory (Foucault, the Frankfurt School, Kuhn, Mirowski), history (Arendt, Veblen, Polanyi), and economics, (Mankiw’s text, Samuelson and Nordhaus’ text, Jevons, Piketty). The plan was that by placing neoliberalism in a broader context, I could get some idea of how it took hold and what were plausible alternatives.

This post discusses theoretical issues. Neoliberalism is a positivist theory.

Positivism is the view that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method (techniques for investigating phenomena based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence, subject to specific principles of reasoning). The doctrine was developed in the mid-19th Century by the French sociologist and philospher Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857).

The scientific method is a good way to understand physical phenomena. The key step is eliminating all aspects of the object of study that cannot be measured and accounted for. If you want to know the charge of an electron for some reason, there’s an old experiment for that. In this experiment, that includes measuring the viscosity of air, but it also includes several assumptions that may or may not be accurate; one is that the droplets of oil are spherical.

In the double slit experiment you fire photons at two slits and get interference bands. Some of the photons hit on one of those bands, and others hit others. We don’t know exactly the route that they take between the photon gun and the target, and we can’t predict which band the particle will hit. There is only statistical prediction. So, there are limits to what we can know in the positivist sense. That’s true of math too for other reasons; see Godel’s Theorems.

One difficulty with positivism is what constitutes a proof in non-physical sciences. Obviously we can’t separate things analogously to the way we isolate photons. And we don’t have a way to repeat experiments and we can’t be sure we understand all the relevant considerations or their magnitude at any point in time, and anyway, people change, societies change and context is controlling.

Besides positivism, neoliberalism is centered on utilitarianism. We can see this in the writings of the inventor of marginal utility, William Stanley Jevons, as I note here. We also see it in Pareto Efficiency. These ideas, and positivism generally, are very useful in rationalizing the production of goods and services.

According to the Frankfurt School the theory that positivism provides the only authentic truth is central to the Enlightenment. Ideas and theories that cannot be proved according to the requirements of positivism cannot be taken seriously. The drive to extreme positivism leads us to ignore concepts like love, social cooperation, justice, morals and all intellectual concepts because they cannot be measured and are inconsistent over time and across societies. As an example, Keynes says that “animal spirits” lead development and stock markets. How do we measure animal spirits? Positivism tells us to find a formula to replace those concepts. Eventually it leads us to focus all our energy and attention on production for profit because that is tangible.

Critical theory rejects another underlying assumption of positivism, the absolute separation of subject and object. In order to study something, it must be segregated from other things. When one person studies another, the investigator must treat the other person as an object. If the object changes, we have to assume that the changes are measurable and predictable. In the same way, when the ruler deals with the subject, the kings treat citizens as objects, and employers treat employees as objects.

To put this in our time, Facebook algorithms treat users as objects and the company sets out to draw a picture of the not-exactly-human user so as to exploit it for profit. Facebook also allows others to use its tools to exploit for profit or for other purposes.

Every society has a system for deciding what goods and services it will produce and a system for dividing up the goods and services it produces. These systems cannot be addressed easily in a positivist framework because there is no way to predict outcomes with any certainty, and because we don’t have a scientific way to assess the quality of the current system, let alone a new arrangement. For that reason, the Frankfurt School claims that positivism reinforces the status quo, and cements it for the benefit of the current group of elites.

The effect of this extreme positivism is to reduce or eliminate imagination by focusing people’s attention on the immediate present. The emphasis on work means that people have less time and energy to think about societal issues.

This all seems terribly arid. Or boring, your choice. But it describes our putrid politics. Lambert Strether analyzed the Sanders/Klobuchar vs. Graham/Cassidy debate at Naked Capitalism; I highly recommend it. Here’s Amy Klobuchar, fn omitted:

KLOBUCHAR: [Y]ou can have things available to you like treatment, right, but if it’s too expensive, is it really available to you? And if you see a Ferrari in a car lot, well, it’s available to you, but you can’t really buy it. And that is the problem if the prices skyrocket.

So it’s doing something immediately to stabilize these prices, but then in the long term making sure we can make health care more affordable. Bernie has one idea; I have some others. And we can talk about them later.

As Lambert Strether shows, Sanders can talk about both now, while Klobuchar can’t, and it’s because she can’t imagine that kind of change as a real possibility. She can’t formulate a radically different vision of society. And that’s the problem facing the whole Democratic Party and especially its last presidential candidate.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Conclusion On Labor Day

This series has been wonky, even for me. The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay is an eye-opening description of the creation of Critical Theory, a way of approaching the social sciences that is still important today, although the forces of formulaic empiricism are gathered against it. The insights of the scholars of the Frankfurt School were remarkably prescient, and are crucial today. They give a nice description of Homo Economicus in Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 175, long before Friedman and Hayek began their push to create the new human. They were also right about the culture industry and the effect of mass culture. Michael Moore tells a version of this story in his movie Columbine.

But for me, the most important insight is the form that reason took during the Enlightenment. This is from an interview of Michel Foucault in 1978.

… I think that the Frankfurt School set problems that are still being worked on. Among others, the effects of power that are connected to a rationality that has been historically and geographically defined in the West, starting from the sixteenth century on. The West could never have attained the economic and cultural effects that are unique to it without the exercise of that specific form of rationality. Now, how are we to separate this rationality from the mechanisms, procedures, techniques, and effects of power that determine it, which we no longer accept and which we point to as the form of oppression typical of capitalist societies, and perhaps of socialist societies too? Couldn’t it be concluded that the promise of Aufklärung (Enlightenment], of attaining freedom through the exercise of reason, has been, on the contrary, overturned within the domain of Reason itself, that it is taking more and more space away from freedom?

The rationality Foucault is talking about here is the same one the Frankfurt School aimed at: the systematic logic of science and technology, focused by a drive for dominance over nature and over human beings. Our society is controlled by system of mechanisms, procedures, techniques and effects of power that focus that logic and allow it to dominate us. That project is far from complete, but we can see its outlines. The political system supports only one kind of life, a life focused on work. The solution to every problem is “Get a Job”. Schools are focused on jobs training, almost from the outset. Those without jobs are scorned and openly vilified, at least if they aren’t rich.

Businesses are focused on achieving dominance. The goal is monopoly and monopsony power, or at least oligopoly and oligopsony. They lobby for laws that free them from responsibility and give them the widest possible scope to control the lives of workers, and the freedom to screw the worker as it suits managers. They pay off courts and legislators to get their way. They demand trade conditions that permit them freedom at the expense of the rest of us. Those who best succeed at dominance get all the money, and corporations fight efforts to limit their income, even by disclosure.

Dominance entails a related submission. People readily allow the growth of dominance. We tell ourselves that our work is fulfilling, and that we are making a contribution, but just ask yourself how much of your work day is filled with mindless and stupid crap that shouldn’t be done at all. Most of us work for entities which are working towards dominance, and our own work is measured by how much we contribute to achieving dominance for the employer. Those not directly involved in establishing dominance are outsourced. That has led to a two-tier economy, in which people who can directly support the drive to dominance are made actual employees and rewarded, and those who don’t are pushed out into dead-end temp, contractor, adjunct or gig jobs.

A people who once fought and died for a fair share of the productive pie now accept flat wages, grotesque inequality of wealth and income, and slowly decaying prospects for our children. We carelessly threw away the protections our parents and grandparents won for us, 40 hour work weeks, paid vacations, fair taxation, and all those communal benefits from fairly priced colleges and tech training to decent mass transportation.

We all understand the reason for these losses. We just can’t afford this stuff. We can’t pay for essentially free college and technical training. If businesses have to pay fair wages, some foreign company will under-price them and put them out of business. If we tax the filthy rich, they’ll leave for the Cayman Islands and take their jobs with them. If we don’t put in 65 hour weeks, someone else will. We don’t have money for mass transit, so we sit on the road in heavy traffic. We give up our hours to traffic, our money for schooling, and our lives for a company that will dump us when it can.

All this is guided by the formal logic of capitalism, so we understand it. That’s the rationality Foucault and the Frankfurt School are talking about.

Each of these losses makes us less free. Every surrender to the formal logic of capitalism makes us less free. Every bit of information that Amazon and Facebook and Apple and Google and all the rest glom onto makes us less free, easier to manipulate. That’s the rationality of capitalism. That’s what comes of formal logic divorced from understanding and recognition of the wide variety of possible purposes. That’s what happens when the only thing that matters is dominance. That’s what happens when we submit to economic dominance.

The promise of the Enlightenment was that we could achieve freedom through reason. Seventy years ago the creators of Critical Theory told us that was wrong. Today we are learning how right they were.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: The Enlightenment

Chapter 8 of The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay discusses Dialectic of The Enlightenment, written during WWII by Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno and published in 1947. I haven’t read the book, though thanks to commenter Neighbor6 I have a copy, so this discussion is all based on Jay’s description. Dialectic of The Enlightenment (my copy is titled Dialectic of Enlightenment, but I will use Jay’s) opens with this:

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Enlightenment’s program was the disenchantment of the world.* It wanted to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge.

The footnote references Max Weber’s quote, which I found here:

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental.

I think that’s how most of us would characterize the Enlightenment, as closing the door on superstition and opening the door to scientific inquiry. The obvious dark side of this apparently good thing is that nature becomes an object for study and manipulation; and human beings who are part of nature become objects for study and manipulation as well. The point of scientific inquiry moved quickly from an effort to understand to an effort to dominate. Science was primarily directed at supporting the production of goods and services and war machines. Adorno wrote that if Marx had his way, the whole world would become a “giant workshop” P. 259. Philosophy also became an element of the support system for a society based on industrial production. Kant’s effort to generate a morality from first principles failed, but for decades, it provided a basis for the morality that supported the capitalist system. Then the full potential of the power to dominate became clear as Hitler and Stalin achieved total domination and pushed the world into a nightmarish war.

A second problem, beyond domination, is the reductionism of science. As Horkheimer put it, “the formula supplants the image;”. P. 270. All that does not serve the capitalist system, about humans, animals, resources, the atmosphere and the planet itself, all of that is meaningless and is ignored. That includes all those spiritual and communal feelings that hold people together in groups of all sizes. It also includes our fellow feelings with other creatures, our feelings of oneness with the natural world, our gratitude for the bounty of the world, our respect for the beauty and power of the world, all useless and meaningless.

Jay begins Chapter 8 with a quote from Max Horkheirmer

If by enlightenment and intellectual progress we mean the freeing of man from superstitious belief in evil forces, in demons and fairies, in blind fate—in short, the emancipation from fear—then denunciation of what is currently called reason is the greatest service reason can render. P. 253.

Given the results of the 20th Century, Horkheimer can easily be excused for taking this pessimistic view. In any event, the idea of domination of nature became the focal point of the work of the Frankfurt School after WWII as the scholars worked to understand its ramifications. In a way, that work replaced the goal of unifying theory and practice, a central goal at the beginning of the Institute for Social Research, as it became obvious that this was not feasible. It was the last break with Marxism.


Jay doesn’t explain why the Frankfurt School’s effort to combine theory and praxis failed, and why the scholars of the Institute concluded that philosophy and what they called speculative thought cannot provide a way towards social revolution and the betterment of society, so I’ll take a shot. One of the things I see in Jay’s book is that the scholars of the Frankfurt School believed deeply in the openness of the future. Jay writes:

In fact, the Enlightenment, for all its claims to have surpassed mythopoeic confusion by the introduction of rational analysis, had itself fallen a victim to a new myth. This was one of the major themes of the Dialectic [of The Enlightenment]. At the root of the Enlightenment’s program of domination, Horkheimer and Adorno charged, was a secularized version of the religious belief that God controlled the world. As a result, the human subject confronted the natural object as an inferior, external other. At least primitive animism, for all its lack of self-consciousness, had expressed an awareness of the interpenetration of the two spheres. This was totally lost in Enlightenment thought, where the world was seen as composed of lifeless, fungible atoms: “Animism had spiritualized objects; industrialism objectified spirits.” P. 260.

The scholars of the Institute completely rejected the idea that the world is closed; they saw it as infinitely open, and driven by human action. The world is not a collection of mindless fungible lifeless atoms, operating under simple laws or under the control of God. Instead, its future is open, radically open, open in ways we can’t imagine. Any social theory that could predict the future would have at its root the assertion that the social world, the world we humans create, operates under a set of definitive and permanent rules, like a clock or a computer. If there is no God, if there are no computer program, then how is it possible to create a theory that would lead to a praxis that would lead to a better society?

On the other hand, once we imagine ourselves, us humans, as part of a boundless and terrible and beautiful universe, we open up a vast panorama for action. The goals of that action are set by humans, hopefully through a decent political process, hopefully guided by our best thinking and our best judgment. That process continues even as Republican thugs carry on their war on the entire world. And it’s worth noting that nature, far from being dominated by humans, is quite able to overwhelm us.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Psychoanalysis in Critical Theory

Chapter 3 of The Dialectical Imagination takes up the role of Freud’s theories in Critical Theory. A major focus is the effort to integrate Freud and Marxian analysis: Freud was pessimistic about social change, which is, of course, the goal of Marxism. That’s a problem which seems pointless. If Freud’s ideas were valuable insights, and the Frankfurt School definitely thought they were, then his bourgeois sensibility and his conservatism are irrelevant.

The scholars of the Institute agreed that the proletariat had failed to carry out Marx’s prediction that it would be at the vanguard of the revolution that would lead to Socialism, the social ownership of the means of production. After Germany’s loss in WWI, conditions were ripe for such an effort. There was an uprising, but the Social Democrats, then the ruling party, crushed it with the aid of the Freikorps. Leading Marxist activists, including the brilliant Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered by the Freikorps, and Marxism as a revolutionary movement collapsed. That failure had a decisive effect on most of the leading intellectuals in Germany, almost all of whom were trained in Marxian thought, including the scholars of the Frankfurt School.

One reason for the failure of the proletariat to lead the revolution is that it did not identify itself as a social class, but as individuals with their own ideas and goals. The Frankfurt School saw Freud’s ideas as a way to understand the proletariat not as a class but as a collection of individuals. Freud’s personality types showed the way to understand the proletariat not as individuals, but as groups of individuals with similar characteristics. Each personality type had its own response to the economic conditions and to the social superstructure raised above the economic stratum.

One of the most important Freudians in the Frankfurt School was Erich Fromm. According to Martin Jay, one important contribution Fromm made to Critical Theory was the use of

//… psychoanalytic mechanisms as the mediating concepts between individual and society—for example, in talking about hostility to authority in terms of Oedipal resentment of the father.
P. 91.//

There are a number of examples of this in later chapters. Perhaps one of the strangest is this:

… Adorno made the point even clearer: “However little doubt there can be regarding the African elements in jazz, it is no less certain that everything unruly in it was from the very beginning integrated into a strict scheme, that its rebellious gestures are accompanied by the tendency to blind obeisance, much like the sado-masochistic type described by analytic psychology.” P. 186.

The point of understanding the personality types and their responses to society was to strengthen individuals through properly designed educational and other programs. The Frankfurt School believed that human beings had an unlimited ability to make themselves better, more rational, more educated, and more moral. The experiences of childhood and repressive social forces could be overcome, and even genetic predispositions could be overcome to some degree.

The second main reason for introducing psychoanalysis into Critical Theory was the belief that Marxism ignored the importance of happiness as a motivating factor in people’s responses to social forces. The scholars believe that Marx was too fixated on the role of labor, and ignored the importance of pleasure.

I don’t know anything about psychology. I’ve read a couple of books by Freud and Jung but one seemed dated and the other seemed woo-woo. When I was in Law School I took a class in the Psych Department at Indiana University, of which my main memory is of a live pigeon-pecking demonstration in the entry hall; a lot of the professors seemed to be devotees of B.F. Skinner. So, that’s a caveat to the following thoughts.

The idea that we need mediating concepts between the individual and the societies individuals crreate seems sensible. Certainly we can’t hope to work our way from the individual to the society without such mediating concepts, at least not in a principled, reasoned, way.

But maybe that isn’t relevant any more. As we grow to understand the way our brains work, the way the meat functions, the way the leaky gray matter spreads hormones, neurotransmitters, and stuff, the easier it becomes to figure out ways to manipulate them directly, maybe as I discuss here and here.

Or maybe we don’t need mediating concepts in an era of big data. The claims made about Cambridge Analytica and the insights that data mining gives Target are examples of unmediated insights into individual action that open the door to direct manipulation of the individual for political or commercial purposes.

After all, mediating concepts like psychological categories were originally intended to help us understand ourselves as individuals participating in a society. They enable us to get past the barriers in our own minds to greater individuation, greater integration of the various parts of our selves into wholes, greater self-understanding. But that matters only to those who think we can make ourselves better human beings.

The people who manipulate us don’t want us to make ourselves better. They like us just like we are, and they don’t care if we as individuals become more racist, more misogynist, more authoritarian, or stupider than we already are. They take advantage of us, of our lack of self-understanding and our lack of integrated personalities, in ways we don’t notice and can’t defend against easily.

The scholars who worked on studies of prejudice and the role of authority in the family and then defined the authoritarian personality type, believed, according to Martin Jay, “…that manipulation rather than free choice was the rule in modern society”. P. 238. Here, as in many other areas, they were able to articulate clearly what we can barely see today.

Theory and the Left

In my introduction to The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay , I concluded with this: “I am reading this book because I firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice.” After several days a commenter questioned my certainty. I think his comments raise important points about my long-term project, and so rather than continue the conversation on an old post, I am hoisting the comments so far into this post, edited for punctuation, spelling and readability. Also, I shortened mine. My thanks to Hubert Horan for raising this issue.

Hubert Horan says:
June 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm
Why do you firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice? You and other individuals might personally benefit from deeper analysis of theory and history, but I see no reason to belief that much broader groups (especially groups as broad as “the left”) could ever establish coherent theories that would make their politics stronger and more effective.

1950s conservatives felt hopelessly outnumbered by the “liberal” consensus of the day, and put in massive effort to create an “intellectual”/theoretical grounding for the movement. (Nash’s history of the conservative intellectual movement is a good starting point but there are many others) All of the various efforts were logically incoherent, as the effort to produce some kind of pure theory were always polluted by emotional/tribal biases (upper class elitism, love of hierarchy and status, poorly disguised racism, misogyny, etc).

Where in history has there ever been “rigorous intellectual political theory” that didn’t end up as an attempt to build a quasi-religious utopian ideological faith? Remember the huge role of ex-Leninists/Trotskyites or devout Catholics and Evangelicals in the development of movement conservatism. The real challenge they faced (as leftists do now) is purely political, which by definition means combining the interests of a lot of groups whose worldviews could never be coherently reconciled. With the conservatives–in the 50s as well as today–this meant putting libertarians, hard social conservatives, laissez-faire capitalists, uncompromising militarists (anti-communists then, anti-Muslim today) and a few other groups under the same tent.

Conservatism grew when people with political skill and charisma (Buckley, Reagan) were able to finesse the differences between groups, and the increasing potential for political power got people to forget about theory and principles and focus on gaining more power. Despite all the effort and pretense, none of the successes of movement conservatism have anything to do with the theories put forth in past decades.

20th Century “liberalism” (from progressives through New Deal/New Frontier through 60s civil rights/antiwar through the collapse in the 70s) was never driven by widely known intellectual “theories” –it was always politically focused. Minor groups like 1930s communists excepted, it was never utopian or quasi-religious and battles were over political turf and tactics, not over ideological purity. There was plenty of searching for ideas about how to solve key problems or reach broader audiences, but very few wasted time searching for the One Great Unifying theory that the masses would line up to support. As with the conservatives, emotional biases (elitism, virtue signaling, desire to protect narrow economic interest, etc) caused lots of problems, but this wasn’t going to be solved with more rigorous theory development.

I find some of these theoretical/historical issues fascinating, and best of luck with your research. I could imagine it might help establish a small faction within “the left” but I can’t see how it could have a powerful impact on “the left” as a whole.

Ed Walker says:
June 12, 2017 at 7:36 pm

This is a great comment. I generally agree with your history, but not necessarily with your view of theory. You neglect the role of neoliberal theory in the rise of conservatism. I’ve gone over a lot of this in other posts, many of which are centered on Foucault and Mirowski, here and earlier at the late lamented FireDogLake. There is a nice history in David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Again, your comment is an important reminder that theory is not decisive. And believe me, I have not the slightest hope that what I write has a chance of effecting change by itself. Ideas, unlike wealth, do trickle out into the world, though, and therein lies my hope.

Hubert Horan says:
June 12, 2017 at 10:12 pm

No disagreement with any of your points about neoliberalism. The next historian of postwar conservatism after Nash I would have mentioned would have been Mirowski.

The difference, perhaps semantic, is that I don’t think anything supporting modern neoliberalism rises to the stature of “theory.” My guess is that the major conservative theorists of the 50s and 60s (Burnham, Kirk, Chambers, Rusher, Meyer, et. al) would have recognized modern neoliberal advocacy for what it is–faux-analysis to feed the propaganda needs of wealthy plutocrats. They certainly would have recognized that it was not “conservative” or theoretically rigorous.

Yes, there was a transitional period where some legitimate intellectuals (Friedman, Hayek) laid important groundwork for what later mutated into neoliberalism. Little of Friedman’s serious academic analysis served the neoliberal agenda, but most of his popular tracks did. Conservative “theorizing” had major impacts only after they abandoned the model of independent academic analysis for a propaganda model serving the political objectives of their paymasters.

That’s the discussion so far. The point about whether neoliberalism is a theory requires a response. Philip Mirowski might agree to some extent with Horan’s point. But I don’t. I think neoliberals accept at least the following ideas as foundational to their project.

1. Freedom means economic freedom.
2. Private property must be protected at the expense of every other interest.
3. The only valid way to allocate resources is through markets.
4. There are absolute truths. The first three points are examples of absolute truths.

Each of these four is subject to being interpreted in two ways, one way for the funders and one way for the rubes. Neoliberals tout economic freedom in health insurance, arguing that people should be allowed to buy insurance against specific diseases, or not, or specific limits on coverage or not. What that means is that poor people can buy whatever they can afford, whether or not it has value. In general, you are free to buy whatever you can afford, and that’s their definition of freedom. Meanwhile rich people can buy full protection from the costs of health care, because that’s freedom.

We see this form of argument all the time. Here’s Megan McArdle explaining why not installing sprinklers in public high-rise buildings is a plausible money-saving idea, and argues that markets should make safety decisions. Here’s Matt Yglesias explaining why Bangladesh might not even bother with building safety. In both cases, the only issue of interest is economic freedom.

On the idea of absolute truth, at one level, this sounds like an endorsement of fundamentalist Christianity. At another, we need to know who decides what that absolute truth is. The rich might let fundamentalist preachers decree dogma, because ti doesn’t bother them or their kids and it sedates people. But when it comes to economic matters, including much foreign policy, we can be sure they ignore all that Christian stuff about the Sermon on the Mount and the story of the Loaves and the Fishes, and all that redistribution stuff.

Modern philosophy raises serious problems with the idea of absolute truth, valid for all times and in all places. Critical Theory also rejects the idea of absolute truth, and with it the idea that social problems can be solved permanently. We’ll see how that works out as we go forward in this book.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay

I am reading The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 by Martin Jay (1970). It’s my introduction to the intellectual history of Critical Theory, which might provide a tool for understanding our society. I am encouraged in this view by one of the books on Amazon’s list of suggestions for people who examined Jay’s book. a book by by Michael Walsh. The description of Walsh’s book includes this:

In The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, Michael Walsh describes how Critical Theory released a horde of demons into the American psyche. When everything could be questioned, nothing could be real, and the muscular, confident empiricism that had just won the war gave way, in less than a generation, to a central-European nihilism celebrated on college campuses across the United States.

How could I resist Jay’s book with a recommendation like that?

The Frankfurt School is the name given a group of scholars who worked at The Institute For Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung). The Institute was formed in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923 with a grant from a German industrialist, Hermann Weil, and his son Felix Weil. Many of the scholars were assimilated Jews, and as the Nazis began to emerge as a serious threat, the members made arrangements to leave. Within a month after Hitler took power, they were all gone, most to Columbia University and the New School where they remained until the Institute reopened in Frankfurt in 1951.

As a group, the scholars of the Frankfurt School were dissatisfied with the explanations offered by the theories of the day to explain the explosive rise of capitalism, and the instability and other problems it created. They rejected to strict versions of Marxism. They were opposed to the fascists, the forms of socialism imposed in Soviet Russia, and to the forms of capitalism of their day. The did like the general approach of the dialectic, which stems from Hegel and on through Marx. They added a new tool, psychoanalysis, on the grounds that Marx and other theorists gave insufficient attention to the role of the individual in the processes of creation of society. Their field of research was primarily sociology and philosophy. They applied those ideas to a close study of the actual forms of society, including work lives, and cultural lives. Jay suggests that their goal was to find conditions that would lead a society to “rational institutions” and to find ways to bring about those conditions. The theory they developed came to be known as Critical Theory.

The name Critical Theory might suggest that the substance of the work of the Frankfurt School was a theory of society. It’s not. It’s a way of examining a society, or sme specific part of a society, trying to understand it in context, and trying to understand it not just in terms of a fixed formal theory, but as the interplay of the various forces active in the society. Critical Theory is a tool, not an answer. Even so, the scholars of the Frankfurt School produced important contributions to our understanding of the forces at work in our lives. A notable example is the work of Adorno on authoritarianism. A clear explanation of a problem often suggests solutions.

The best-known scholars at the outset were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm. Much of the later work was led by Jurgen Habermas. All of the scholars were steeped in the traditions of German intellectualism; they studied Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche among others. Much of their earliest work was devoted to analyzing these earlier works and the problems they saw in light of the then current circumstances.

This book is an intellectual history of Critical Theory. The first chapter is devoted to the history of the Institute, brief biographies, including some of the early writings, of the leading scholars, and their flight from Germany. The author had access to a great deal of material, and was able to interview most of the surviving members in the late 1960s. The second chapter begins the intellectual history proper. It describes the fundamental early ideas of Critical Theory. I’m rereading that chapter now, but I want to start writing about the ideas I have already encountered.

A note on form. I intend to be quite careful in identifying the source of the materials as I write posts. Some of what seems important is Martin Jay’s take on the ideas of the scholars, some will be quotes from those scholars, and some will be my effort to work out what I read and how it applies to our times. I note that the quotes from the scholars of the Institute are selected by Jay, and I do not have the original texts to provide context. That is a potential source of misunderstanding on my part, and should be kept in mind.

A note on my background in this area. I have only the barest understanding of Marxism, and know nothing about current Marxian writers. I have some familiarity with the philosophical terms I encounter, like phenomenology, epistemology, ontology and many more. I’ll try to focus on the ideas about society, social change, and the role of theory in political practice, and stay away from hardcore philosophy.

I am reading this book because I firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice. The left clearly has a preferred group of policies and specific ideas about preferred forms of society. Theory organizes our thinking so that we can have confidence that our preferred policies are part of a coherent view of what society can and should be, and gives us a framework for explaining our views. That seems more important than ever now, when the party in power and its adherents are utterly incoherent.